Deryk Houston: Cultivating a Place of Peace

Deryk Houston, painting of his Peace Sanctuary land art (detail).Deryk Houston’s landscapes and still lifes are rich and happy and colourful. Their titles, sometimes humourous and always warm, give the sense of an artist in love with the land and those who inhabit it. So, when Houston returned from a visit to Iraq in 1999 and found himself painting out of anger and pain, he gradually realized that the messages of love and hope he felt he was really about would necessitate a change of canvas.

Houston lives in Victoria and has property in Hudson’s Hope in northeastern BC. He made his first trip to Baghdad as part of a peace delegation after expressing concern for the children there who’d suffered the ravages of war. His visit to Iraq and its lasting effect on him and his art is beautifully documented in the National Film Board’s From Baghdad to Peace Country. It follows the artist’s attempt to understand all sides of the conflict, and his subsequent landscape art, first in Iraq; later, in Victoria, BC, and his native Scotland, and finally in Hudson’s Hope.

Houston takes an imprint of the hand of an Iraqi child dying of cancer in a Baghdad hospital.Houston says in the film that his art always sought to explain life’s purpose. He was also interested in contrasts though, and the United Nations-imposed sanctions and their devastating effect on the children of Baghdad – Unicef estimates that as many as half a million children under five have died as a result of the war and sanctions – left him desperate to both make sense of the situation and offer a message of hope for all parents and children living in fear and conflict.
“When I got back, I was quite totally shattered,” Houston explains. His early artwork following the trip was dark, accusing, and angry, and did nothing to help matters. It took about a year, he says, to figure out how to turn what he’d witnessed into something spiritual and positive.

In 2000, following his bout of despair, Houston made a large image with hay in a farmer’s field in Victoria. It featured a mother and child and resembled a small one he’d made of stones in Baghdad before leaving in 1999. “It opened up something inside myself,” Houston says of the large-scale land sculpture. He went on to create another near his birthplace in Scotland in 2001, and then started the Peace Sanctuary in Hudson’s Hope in 2002.

Aerial view of Deryk Houston’s Peace Sanctuary near Hudson’s Hope, BC.  Photo by Don PettitAlong with his son Sam and catskinner (bulldozer) Phil Kirtzinger, Houston created a 1000-foot diameter raised landscape featuring a mother, child, and dove in the BC Peace Country. Following its completion and the NFB filming, he returned to Baghdad for several months, where he worked on a large-scale sculpture that the Iraqi government planned to cast in bronze. Plaster handprints Houston had taken of children who were dying of cancer were one part of the huge project, which took several months and created a great deal of anguish for his family back home. He managed to complete the three-part structure’s plaster version, but the project ground to a halt in late 2002 with the threat of further bombing. Houston returned to Canada. No plans have been made yet to continue the sculpture as the country still faces widespread destruction and grief.

These days, Houston continues his overall vision, which includes healing himself and those who have suffered alongside him. The Hudson’s Hope Peace Sanctuary, which he purposely set in a remote area so that visiting required genuine effort, has been a comfort. And while plans are afoot to plant trees that help protect the artwork from an onslaught of all-terrain vehicles, Houston envisions a lifetime commitment of making it a place of peace.

“It was a great healing process for myself after having been to Iraq,” Houston says of the landart. “I want people to approach the site the same way they might a modest church. I hope it will stand for generations to come and become a symbol of peace for those who never give in to hatred in the struggle against evil.”

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